To the joy of his fans, Cleveland Brown will return to Family Guy and the town of Quahog this spring. After four uneven seasons, FOX finally decided to put The Cleveland Show out of its misery and canceled it earlier this year. I say misery because in typically self-aware Seth MacFarlane fashion, in-jokes on the series made it clear that everyone knew the end was nigh. In a late season four episode, a doctor tells Cleveland he has bad news, to which Cleveland replies, “I’m dying or we’re canceled! It’s one of them!”
While laugh out loud at times—if you’re into Seth MacCray-Cray humor—the show never really found its footing. Perhaps that has something to do with its complex racial equation—three white men creating a black comedy—that never really resolved itself. More so, I think it goes back to why Seth and his crew can never touch the work of other animated greats: lack of endearing characters.
The Cleveland Show was always the annoying third child behind Family Guy and American Dad, the one where the parents stopped going to his baseball games. Everyone knows Seth’s shows have characters that shamelessly overlay each other—but is he being cleverly shameless or just plain lazy? You can never tell. A quick glance at the cross section of Cleveland’s buddies reveals the frameworks of Quagmire, Joe, and Peter himself in Tim the Bear, right down to his shirt. If American Dad is a shadow of Family Guy, then The Cleveland Show is a shadow of that shadow.
But how to put your finger on why the Family Guy/Cleveland universe feels somehow insubstantial at the end of the day… I feel it in an unexpected way: the gross world of merchandising. I’m among those who stopped watching The Simpsons in 2003, but my Mom’s house still has boxes of comics, figurines, and unplayed trivia games. When I see Family Guy toys or posters in stores, it strikes me as kind of otherworldly. A cuddly Stewie plush? Really? It’s as if the show is trying to cash in on something that it isn’t. How deep do any of the characters really go? Do we know them as people aside from their fart jokes or punches to their daughter’s face? Now, The Simpsons may have double the amount of seasons under its belt, but there’s a fully functional town, a little universe in Springfield that we can dive into. Family Guy, and ostensibly The Cleveland Show, has never quite tapped into that.
And that’s the opportunity cost of all of MacFarlane’s self-referential, cutaway, devil-may-care humor. It’s amazing for quick laughs, and it works every episode. It’s the craft of the people he collaborates with. But where it falls short—The Cleveland Show included—is in characters you can hang your hat on, episodes that reveal something substantial about their families without lampooning heartfelt moments on sitcoms. I’m not asking for The Cleveland Show to be something it’s not—I would never contend to watch it or Family Guy for the sake of plot. You come to them for belly laughs. I’m just suggesting why Cleveland never caught on in a more meaningful way than his spare and welcome cameos on Family Guy. When your game is quick chuckles and ball jokes, it’s all too easy for your viewers to find them somewhere else.
Were you ever a fan of The Cleveland Show? What do you expect from his Family Guy return? Share your thoughts below!